The state funeral of Queen Elizabeth was a carefully choreographed reminder of the symbolic unity of the British monarchy, militarism, Church and empire. Diana Francis reflects on how these linkages both determine and distract from the crisis of our deeply flawed democracy and undermine the interests of ordinary people.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II and simultaneous accession of King Charles III have so far occasioned remarkably little public discussion of the monarchy, as such, and its relationship to democracy.
I always thought that monarchy was a rather ridiculous institution but thought that its financial costs were probably paid for by tourism. I felt that while presidents, in whatever form, could bring their own problems, a constitutional monarch was relatively risk-free.
Now, when I think again, I see that the seemingly benign symbolic and supposedly unifying role of our monarchy has a much darker side. It is a system which embodies nationalist, expansionist and militarist values, which have been embedded in the UK’s national psyche: one that in the past fed and nurtured our imperialist ventures and, more recently, its neo-colonialism.
As is announced on the royal website, she was the head of the military, symbolising the identity of our nation as, above all, a military unit. This was illustrated by the largely military make-up of the funeral processions, and the military music that accompanied them. The other mainstay of the celebrations was the Church of England, also headed by our monarch. That militarism and Christianity are bound together in this way is an affront to the man on whose life and teachings the early Church was built – as was the overwhelming display of wealth, which is also central to our monarchy.
Nowadays the UK’s militarism is focussed on the geopolitical ‘hard power’ of military dominance, no longer as the primary player but as a junior partner of the United States and within NATO. The series of wars it has helped to launch in recent decades have destroyed the lives of countless thousands, and their legacies have been grim.
Moreover, the UK is a nuclear weapons state that refuses to sign the UN’s global nuclear ban treaty, the TPNW. (In this regard, UK Government policy regarding one wing of the monarch’s command, the military, is now opposed by the other wing, the C of E in its endorsement of the treaty.) Our country has done nothing to work with others for multilateral nuclear disarmament, as it promised to do when it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) and indeed last year announced an increase in its stockpile of nuclear warheads by 40%.
The power of nuclear weapons to threaten, not protect, the security not only of this country but of the entire planet has now become acutely apparent, at a time when President Putin threatens openly to use them.
Even without the use of nuclear weapons, the human and environmental costs of militarism – the slaughter, destruction and impoverishment it causes, the laying waste of land, creatures and vegetation, and the immense carbon emissions from the manufacture and use of armaments of all kinds, plus the financial cost and impoverishment it entails – are all incalculable. If our monarchs entrench unflinching support for all this in our nation’s psyche, their impact is hardly benign.
An apology for democracy
The ceremonial paraphernalia associated with the monarchy pervade our supposedly democratic proceedings in Parliament – most blatantly in the House of Lords, as the name itself indicates, but in the House of Commons too. The glorious buildings of Westminster and the historic pageantry of proceedings seem to hide the desperate nature of the challenges that currently confront this country and indeed the world.
In our adversarial political system, the dynamics of battle characterise proceedings, turning what should be thoughtful discussion into a shouting match. Our ‘first past the post’ electoral system both drives and reflects this combative dynamic. It also denies many voters any chance of having their views reflected in the outcomes of elections. In the 2019 general election, over 22 million votes across the UK were ‘wasted’ because they went to non-elected candidates or were ‘surplus’ (i.e. cast for an elected candidate but beyond what was required to secure their election), so that voting is reduced to a form of gambling, and smaller parties, offering a proper range of policies, stand little or no chance of winning seats.
This is an urgent matter, since our effectively two-party, adversarial system prevents movement on the two things that threaten the future of humanity: war and climate change. Neither of our two dominant parties can afford to seem ‘weak’ on matters of defence, given the UK’s embedded identity as a leading military power. Keir Starmer did not question the huge increase in the defence budget that was announced in November 2020 ahead of the government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. And neither Starmer nor Labour’s shadow defence secretary John Healey said anything in their party conference speeches against Liz Truss’s proposal to double defence spending by 2030.
The urgency of action
The climate crisis is equally urgent. It calls for radical action, nationally and internationally, and is hugely impacted by military production and action. (The scale of the destruction, carbon emissions and other environmental damage associated with the ongoing war in Ukraine is scarcely mentioned.) Yet here again, without a coalition of parties, no single party will find the resolve to make the radical shift in priorities needed to prevent the worsening of what is already a global crisis , in which catastrophic fires and floods in other parts of the world make plain the calamity that looks set to engulf our entire planet.
Meanwhile, global poverty has risen rapidly including in our own country, where a large and growing number of people now rely on foodbanks to keep hunger at bay, just as those who have hitherto donated to them are running out of spare cash to do so, and our latest terrible government has introduced fiscal measures that will ensure the rapid widening of the gap between rich and poor.
In relation to this nexus of crises and the democratic deficit, the fact that we have a king on the sidelines seems neither here nor there. What we need more than anything is an intelligent, well-informed and caring system of government, elected fairly and preferably informed by regular Citizens’ Assemblies, plus a restoration of power and funding to local authorities.
In the absence of those things, in a situation of such urgency, we cannot just wait in hope. We must challenge current policies in every way we can, including taking to the streets, Policing Bill or no Policing Bill, and organising our own people’s assemblies. The people, the demos, must speak for themselves. Enough is enough.
The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.
Image Credit: Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport, via Flickr.